Once upon a Saturday afternoon, browsing the shops was just what you did – but then the internet came along and all that changed. With 24/7 online shopping at our fingertips, the days of bricks and mortar stores seem numbered. But is the high street really dead? Two SL team members join the debate…
YES, It’s All About Online
Charlotte Collins, Fashion Editor
Picture the scene. It’s 7pm on Oxford Street and Christmas lights are twinkling above the hordes of tourists, all pointed elbows and determined faces, crowding through too-small doorways, security bells needlessly bleeping. You battle on, avoiding merciless umbrella spokes and puddles of rainwater into the bright lights of Zara or Mango, to be faced with all the wrong sizes, Zara Woman having moved location and headache inducing queues. And don’t get me started on the changing rooms… More queues, inescapable heat, floors lined with dust; snaking grey plumes just lying in wait to stick to your socks and ruin anything you drop.
Can you tell I’m anti shopping? The more time I spend on my favourite brands’ websites, the more I’m turned off from visiting the destinations themselves. The comfort argument is an oldie but a goodie – who would want to traipse around a city centre or a stifling mall when you could be in your trackies with no makeup and a G&T whilst you stock up on new clothes? But the main thing high street-loving luddites blindly ignore is the sheer range of options available online that physical stores simply can’t compete with. Need to find a pair of embellished bright blue courts with a three-inch heel? The internet can pull up those search results for you in moments, whilst finding something that specific in-store is mission impossible. Not forgetting online is also where brands launch exclusive collections, collaborations and lines you can access without having to take the day off work and line up round the block.
It’s not just me: a string of digital retailers are proving the fashion industry no longer relies on the try-before-you-buy model. Net-a-Porter has created exclusive collections with Gucci, Burberry, Armani and Roland Mouret, whilst labels like Farfetch and Mytheresa exist purely in the online sphere. Matches Fashion may still have bricks and mortar stores, but 85% of their revenue is generated from e-commerce.
To the whiners who claim you need to feel and try on clothes before you purchase them, I refer to more sophisticated online shopping experiences; Zara’s site allows you to enter your measurements to allow it to predict what size you should take in any given item, whilst ASOS has just launched a ‘try before you buy’ service enabling you to order a haul and only pay for what you choose to keep post-send out. Now how can you rival all that?
NO, It’s Still Going Strong
Rosy Cherrington, Features Editor
Charlotte may know fashion, but I know shopping – far too much for my bank balance’s good. Yes, in-person purchases are sharply declining while online spending rises ever higher, but it only takes a trip to Oxford Street on a weekend (aka actual hell on earth – but more on that later) to know the high street is still alive and kicking. The seemingly year-round sales and constant shop closures might be cause for concern, but I like to think of it as weeding out the chaff – do we really need 20 samey stores selling samey fast fashion? The brands doing it well, selling up-to-the-minute trends at decent prices, certainly aren’t short of in-store customers – Charlotte is right, when have you ever not had to queue at the checkout in Zara?
Fast delivery and free returns may make buying online more appealing, but the whole process is still riddled with inconveniences. The faff of missing deliveries, orders never turning up, the downright Machiavellian companies who don’t offer to pick up returns from the office and make you lug it to the postie instead. Plus, you can never be sure exactly what you’re getting. The Advertising Standards Authority enforces strict rules for marketing materials, but why not product photos too? Stylists pinning clothes on models to give shapeless garments a better fit, the entirely unbelievable blanket ‘Model is wearing a size 10’ statements and clever lighting to make cheap fabrics appear opaquer – choosing the right products in the right size isn’t always easy. I’d much rather try something on in-store, and actually feel the fabric, rather than ordering two different sizes and praying it looks like the pictures.
Of course, I will still shop online – even more so once same-day returns are on offer – but, done right, the high street’s future looks bright. Take new concept stores like Sweaty Betty’s Carnaby Street experience – three floors of fashion, fitness, food and beauty – where you can buy the brand’s gear, take part in a workout, have a blow dry and chill out with a smoothie all in one place. Or Louis Vuitton’s opulent new Place Vendôme store in Paris, a one-stop destination combining couture, jewellery, fragrance and artisanal workshops. Then there’s H&M’s flagship Barcelona outpost, with a plant-filled outdoor terrace (where bored boyfriends seemed to have gathered, last time I went) and a branch of cult healthy café Flax & Kale. Shopping IRL should be, and can be, an enjoyable experience – so as for the retail dinosaurs and their declining high street sales. Adapt or die, I say.
Not having to traipse from shop to shop, and battle the crowds, is clearly appealing – but it isn’t the only secret to success. Like Glossier – whose Insta-bait New York showroom-cum-shop attracted beauty lovers from far and wide – thriving businesses know that to target the Millennial Pink Pound, you need a brand people want to be a part of. And in a culture where smartphones are replacing social interactions, if you ask me, an outing is often a welcomed thing.